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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Italian Riviera, Part Two: Portovenere & Portofino

I'll be completely honest with you: I really don't feel like writing this post. It's been a pretty exhausting week so far. We spent the weekend in the beautiful city of Vienna (if you follow me on Instagram you'd know this....hint hint), only getting back on Monday night. Yesterday, I spent the day cleaning before we picked up Arya from the doggy hotel and today I'm just pooped. The rest of this week and next I'll be deep in Thanksgiving preparations for next Thursday. While I'm super excited for the actual holiday, I always stress out over making sure I have the perfect menu and all the ingredients and tools I need to make it happen.

Today's post is going to be a short one continuing on with our week in the Italian Riviera. Jaime was working most days, but we did take advantage of the late afternoons and the weekend to explore some of the towns we hadn't yet seen in the province of Liguria.

Portovenere is one of those towns, also listed as a UNESCO site with Cinque Terre. We dropped by one night before dinner just for a quick stroll and some pictures. I can't tell you much about it, since we didn't actually go into any of the shops or restaurants, but I can tell you it makes for great sunset pictures :). Overall, I think it gave off a vibe similar to Lerici, in that it is charming yet doesn't get the attention its famous five neighbors receive.

Portofino was absolutely gorgeous and we did get to spend a little more time there, but Jaime described it perfectly while we were driving into it: "The playground of the filthy rich" Obviously nothing against rich people and by all means if you're visiting for vacation and want to splurge a little, go for it. But bottom line is that it's expensive. We were planning on having dinner there, but quickly realized that every restaurant was going to set us back at least 200€. Personally, I just didn't think it was worth it when we were eating the same food in Lerici for about 50€. Other than that, it does make for a nice walk with its stunning views.

There was a cute flower event going on when we got there! 

End of September and these babies still looked like this! Only in Italy! 

The view as you get to and leave Portofino...Or the playground, as Jaime likes to call it. 

This wasn't Portofino per se, but you do have to drive through this town to get to Portofino. I loved the view from this pier. 
These two towns on the Italian Riviera are definitely worth a visit if you're in the area. On my next post I'll continue on the Liguria lovin' with our day trip to Genoa!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Italian Riviera: Lerici

Back in September, Jaime had to go for work to a little beach town in the Italian Riviera called Lerici. In fact, I mentioned it when I wrote my post on Cinque Terre

Here's what I knew about Lerici: nothing. On the map I saw it was close to Portovenere, a much more well-known seaside town, and Cinque Terre. With my love for Cinque Terre, that was more than enough to convince me to tag along. 

But, as it tends to happen with Italian towns, the less well-known they are, the more they tend to surprise you and charm the pants off you. Lerici was absolutely no exception. It is right in the middle of the famed Golfo dei Poeti (Gulf of Poets), offers splendid beach views from wherever you are, and amazing seafood. 

Of course I knew it was a beach town, but I did not for a minute think we'd be lucky to have a beachfront hotel. But we did! To be fair though, we were there at the end of the season and pretty much every hotel in Lerici is beachfront. We stayed at the Hotel Florida, a charming 3 star hotel that really deserves at least 4 stars. Most rooms had their own balcony with splendid views of the beach, a breakfast buffet was included, and best of all, it's dog-friendly!

While Jaime was working, Arya and I explored Lerici and the neighboring town of San Terenzo (when I say neighboring, I mean the boardwalk literally unites these two little towns so its less than a kilometer walk). We walked to the main attraction of the area, the Castello di Lerici, and climbed up to its terrace to enjoy the stunning panorama. We didn't go inside the castle because its supposed to have some small dinosaur exhibit for kids. 

The view from the castle terrace.
The colorful main piazza. 
Can we take a moment to appreciate the cute old man enjoying the beach with his walking stick? I wanna be like him! 
This was the neighboring town of San Terenzo, with its beach and castle. 
The star of the show stealing the spotlight!
The Blue Mile in the Gulf of Poets. 
I also got to enjoy the beach, which wasn't as great as Sardinia's beaches, but still way better than anything in Florida so I definitely cannot complain. The beach directly in front of our hotel was Venere Azzura, a Blue Flag beach. If you don't know about the Blue Flag program, it is basically a certification that a beach receives if it meets the standards set by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) for cleanliness, safety, water quality, etc. Countries become members on a voluntary basis, so you won't find any Blue Flag beaches in the U.S., for example, but in Italy you will find thousands. Basically, if you want a guarantee that a beach in Italy is any good, just go to a Blue Flag beach. 

That's our hotel from the beach!

This little guy was enjoying that beautiful beach.
At night, Jaime and I would go out to eat at the restaurants in Lerici, which offered some amazing seafood at better prices than you would find in the neighboring villages of Cinque Terre. Most of the restaurants offered pretty much the same things, with the traditional Ligurian pesto or salted anchovies, pasta with seafood, and a number of different fish options. Our favorite restaurant was by far Il Frantoio, but we also enjoyed Ristorante del Molo and Ristorante le Vele. We even took a seafood break one night and ate at La Piccola Oasi, a very charming restaurant that specialized in meat. The chef was a very cool guy that's cooked for some very famous rock bands, including the Rolling Stones! He has pictures and autographs displayed all over the restaurant. 

After I spent all my time taking pictures, Jaime just blew me away with ONE picture!
Overall, Lerici was a very nice break from the city, especially when you come so late in the season like the end of September, when everything was very quiet and relaxing. It's also a good base from which to explore Portovenere and Cinque Terre, without paying the Cinque Terre prices. Don't be like us and stay at La Spezia, when you can stay at this beautiful little paradise instead!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Visiting the Capitoline Museums

It's Friday, it's been raining for two days now, and I just want to crawl back under my wonderful covers again. But, I won't! 

I've realized it's been awhile since I've written something about the city I call home (that would be Rome, of course) so it's high-time I gave the Eternal City a little lovin'. 

The truth is that since we live in Rome, for better or worse sometimes its magic just wears off. I know, I must be crazy, right? But when we are here, we get so dragged up in routine that we forget to go out and explore. But we're working on that. 

In fact, a few weekends ago, we went to the Capitoline Museums and were lucky enough to be able to see it for the special price of 1€ per person! That's because it was a European Cultural Day (honestly, I don't even know the correct English term for the event) and entrance to a bunch of state museums were reduced to 1€. 

We hadn't visited the Capitoline Museums because I had been putting it off. Jaime had been dying to see the original Roman she-wolf statue (you'll see which one I'm talking about in a second), but every time we tried to go there was such a huge line to get in that we decided to just wait for the winter months when there were fewer tourists around. Then we heard about this event and we are so cheap that we decided to brave the crowds and pay the smaller fee (after all, it went pretty well for us when we did it for the Vatican Museums). Strangely enough, we arrived at around 10 a.m. and there was absolutely nobody in line! Hooray for us!

The Capitoline Museum consists of three buildings in Piazza del Campidoglio on Capitol Hill. They include Palazzo Senatorio, Palazzo dei Conservatori, and Palazzo Nuovo. The design of the buildings are Michelangelo's work, though it took around 400 years to build. It is also the oldest museum in the world, since Pope Sixtus IV donated various bronze artifacts to the city, with the condition that they place it in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. 

I was surprised at how much I liked the museum, especially some of the parts that contained many statues (I like those more than paintings) and I'm sharing with you some pictures since Jaime really out-did himself this time :). 

How cool is this? Fragment from the Colossus of Constantine.
I came up with this picture idea and I'm proud of it!
This ceiling is beautiful!
Room of the Horatii and the Curiatii. Each wall had different frescos depicting different stories of the foundation of Rome. This one is a scene from the legend of Romulus & Remus, fed by a she-wolf and grew up to be the founders of Rome. 

Battle between Rome and the Veii
Same room, opposite wall, the Rape of the Sabine women. 

The She-Wolf of Rome, formal name is the Capitoline Wolf.
Remus & Romulus
Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, The Senate & People of Rome. 

That's all for this quick Friday post, hope you have a great weekend!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Top Reasons to go to Italy's Most Underrated City: Turin

If you asked me what I was doing a year ago at this very moment, I'd say, "That's easy! I was in Turin!"

Turin is hands down Italy's most underrated city. It's also my favorite. Yes, above Rome, above Florence, above Venice, and above Milan. You're probably wondering why it's taken me an entire year to write about Turin? No easy answer other than I'm a lazy bum. It's true.

Last year, Jaime had to go on a business trip to Turin for a few days so we decided to head over the weekend before and get a head start on exploring. It was our first time outside of Rome, so maybe this contributed to the magic, but it was wonderful. After we got back, I should've written about it right away, but one thing led to another and we signed the contract for our rental, moved in, and before I knew it we went back to the States for Christmas and I still hadn't written about Turin.

Now since it's all chilly and fall-like in Rome (minus the wonderful autumn colors on the foliage, which doesn't really happen in Rome) I figured it's the perfect time to do a little reminiscing and give you guys all the reasons why you should stop everything you're doing, book a flight, a cruise, a train, a horse and RUN to Turin!

The Palaces

Turin was Italy's first capital in 1861, but it also used to be home to Italy's royal family, the House of Savoy. This means the city is filled with palazzi, all of them part of the UNESCO listing of the Residences of the Royal House of Savoy. We took a tour of the Royal Palace of Turin (Palazzo Reale di Torino) and it's still my favorite royal palace in Italy out of all the ones we've seen. The inside is elegant and the Royal Armory is absolutely spectacular. Next to the Royal Palace is also the Royal Library, which houses important manuscripts and works by Italian artists. The most famous of these is Leonardo Da Vinci's self-portrait. We thought that it was always on exposition, but it's not. However, I found out a few days ago that it will be available for public viewing until January 15, 2015, so I may have an excuse to take a trip to Turin before then!

Another important palace is the Palazzo Madama, also in the same plaza as the Royal Palace. Today it houses Turin's Civic Museum of Ancient Art. I can't tell you about the quality of the Museum because we didn't want to pay the entrance fee, however, you can go inside the palace and at least see the entrance hall for free, which is absolutely stunning. 

Yet another palace inside the city (there are actually a total of 5 in the city) is the Castello del Valentino located inside Valentino Park. I had the opportunity to at least take a picture of it from the outside on a walk through this beautiful park. It is used as the main building of the Architecture School of the Polytechnic University of Turin. Can you imagine going to school in a UNESCO site?!?! 

The Parks & Piazze

I have never seen so many beautiful little parks and magnificent piazze in such a short walking distance. Of course there's the Piazza Castello with the Royal Palace, which you can see in the picture above. There's also Piazza San Carlo, which is my favorite. I have about a million pictures of this piazza from every angle! It has twin churches, the Chiesa di San Carlo and Chiesa di Santa Cristina, and an equestrian statue of Emanuele Filiberto, Duke of Savoy from 1553 to 1580. 

An iPhone picture that looks straight out of an old movie. 

Then there's Piazza Vittorio Veneto next to the River Po. It's big and beautiful, especially at night during the holidays when it's lit up with Christmas lights. Even though we went the very first weekend of November, they already had lights up all over the city!

Across the river. 
We also just casually bumped into many small parks along the way, the cutest was Giardini La Marmora, not too far from Piazza San Carlo. 

Another small park I stumbled upon was Giardino Sambuy, which was boasting stunning fall foliage. 

Come on, Rome, get with the program! Let's see some red-leaf action!

Finally, Parco del Valentino, Turin's second-largest public park, is great for a walk if there's cooler weather and you can see the Castello del Valentino, which I mentioned above, along with some very nice fountains too. 

Snapped this picture with the iPhone and it's one of my favorites!

The Egyptian Museum

You can tell that this was our first trip in Italy because we did everything there was to do in Turin, including visiting the Egyptian Museum. Nowadays, we tend to do some slow traveling and hit up one, max two, museums per city or risk dying of information overload. But I am so glad we went to this museum. 

Turin's Egyptian Museum is the second-largest museum of Egyptian Antiquities in the world! Wanna know where the largest one is? Cairo. This means if you want to see Egyptian things without going to Egypt, you go to Turin. Some of the things you'll find are the coffins, the mummies, the cat mummies, the papyrus, and the most ancient Book of the Dead in existence. It really is a must-see if you're a fan of all the Ancient Egyptian stuff. 

The Churches

You're not in Italy if you don't visit a bunch of churches, right? Turin is no exception to this rule and like I mentioned above, we did it all.

First, there's the Turin Cathedral, dedicated to St. John the Baptist. It houses the Chapel of the Shroud, which is where the famous Shroud of Turin is located. The shroud is a relic believed to be the burial shroud of Jesus. Note that the real shroud is not always available for public viewing, but they do have a copy which gives you an idea of what it looks like. I read in an article somewhere that it's supposed to be on exposition sometime in 2015, so if you're really interested a Google search will probably yield more information.

Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians (Santa Maria Ausiliatrice) was of particular interest to Jaime. It was part of the St. John Bosco's home for poor boys and has a small exhibition with some of St. John Bosco's personal things.

St. John Bosco's Room.

We saw the Basilica of Superga at night, without our camera, so we have no pictures of it, but I'm mentioning it because it has an interesting story. In 1706, Duke Victor Amadeus II of Savoy climbed the hill of Superga to see Turin besieged by Franco-Spanish troops during the War of Spanish Succession. He supposedly got down on his knees and swore promised (Jaime says it's more politically correct) to the Virgin Mary that if the Piedmontese armies defeated the French, he would build a monument for her. They did, and so he commissioned the Basilica of Superga. It was also in Superga where, in 1949, an Italian plane carrying the entire Torino football team (a legendary team that had won four titles from 1946-1949) crashed into the back of the church, killing them all.

Santuario della Consolata is another church we walked to, mainly because it has the best view of Turin imaginable. We arrived too late in the evening to go inside the church, but we did get some amazing blue hour pictures.

Santuario della Consolata with some pretty Christmas lights.

Here's this picture again without the text so you can see it in its full glory. 

The Chocolate & The Cafes

Okay, seriously, Turin is the chocolate capital of Italy. Ask anybody from the region and they'll assure you it's better than anything Swiss or Belgian (believe me, I've asked). And if you like Nutella, well, they kinda invented it. The story goes that during Napoleon's reign imported raw chocolate was hard to come by, so the chocolate makers started incorporating hazelnut to make it more affordable. Today, Turin is known for gianduia, the mix of hazelnut and chocolate (it's also better than the bottled Nutella). In the summer, you'll even find gelato di gianduia (Nutella ice cream anyone?). 

In the winter, you can go for some hot chocolate. In fact, you cannot leave Turin without having hot chocolate. This isn't any of that powdered crap you make back home in the States. This is hot chocolate so hot and thick, that the spoon stands up straight in it. It's also not for the faint of heart, it's so rich and dark that even I have a hard time drinking it all, but Jaime loves it. You can ask for it topped with panna, a type of whipped cream that is nothing like you're used to. It's so thick that it almost has an ice cream-like consistency!

And if you want to go for the real local stuff, you go for some bicerin. It's a hot drink made from espresso, chocolate and milk and there's only one place to drink it: Caffè al Bicerin. More than likely there will be a line out the door to get into this tiny little cafe, but the wait is more than worth it. 

Turin's cafes are world-famous. Some of the most historic ones include Baratti & Milano and Caffè Torino, where once you walk in you feel like you're about to have some tea with the Queen. Prices aren't cheap, especially if you go to the ones in the main piazze, but it's definitely worth it. If you aren't up for a cappuccino break at a table, you can always just do like the Italians and have your drink at the bar, where the price will drop significantly. 

The Food

Piedmontese cuisine is not typically the cuisine we think of when we imagine Italian food, but all the Italians know that if you want to eat well, you go to Piedmont.

The best restaurant we have been to in all of Italy was in Turin, a place called Bastian Contrario. You have to make reservations and you cannot walk there because it's a little ways from the city center, but it's worth it. We took the bus to get there and they were kind enough to call a taxi for us to take us back after dinner. I'll tell you right now that if you want to make the most out of this place, you shouldn't eat all day and come as hungry as possible. Dinner started with a series of at least 50 different plates in an antipasto buffet. There were some cold traditional, seasonal dishes, and some hot dishes, and you eat as much as your heart desires.  Be warned though that just when you think you're stuffed, the waiter comes and recites the evenings first and second courses, then dessert! It was a ton of food, all absolutely delicious for a grand total of 50€ a person. It's not cheap, but it is truly a unique experience of everything Piedmont cuisine has to offer. 

Turin was a unique experience for Jaime and I and I'm glad it was our first trip outside of Rome because it really set the tone for everything Italy has to offer. Turin and the larger Piedmont region really has it all, from great food, to great wine, and some amazing history. In some ways, I'm sad that Turin doesn't get the attention it deserves, but at the same time I'm glad it's been kept a secret because it heightens the experience for the rest of us that are in on it. ;)

Treasure Tromp